Tennessee, D.C. lead ed reform

Tennessee and District of Columbia schools are making the fastest reading and math gains in the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) , writes Richard Whitmire in a USA Today column.

A few years ago, Tennessee students were acing state tests but failing the high bar set by NAEP, writes Whitmire. Washington D.C. “was regarded as one of the worst urban school districts in the country.”

Both adopted education reforms that remain very controversial.

In Tennessee, a third of the district school superintendents along with the teachers unions in Memphis and Nashville just signed no-confidence letters condemning State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

. . . The Washington reforms are famously controversial, designed by former chancellor Michelle Rhee (Huffman’s ex-wife), who was forced from office in part because of the political turmoil created by those school changes. Current Chancellor Kaya Henderson was able to preserve and improve those reforms partly because she is considerably less inflammatory than Rhee.

Tennessee and D.C. raised their standards, then switched to Common Core.

Both got serious about evaluating teachers.

In Washington, D.C., teachers routinely won rave reviews despite abysmal outcomes by their students — a contradiction routinely explained away by poverty (despite higher-poverty school districts with better outcomes). That changed dramatically with its groundbreaking 2009 IMPACT teacher evaluation. At the time, national union leaders dubbed it outrageous. Last month, a national study dubbed it effective. Overall, the better teachers stayed and tried harder, encouraged by the prospect of being rewarded. The “minimally effective” teachers tended to look for other lines of work.

Forty percent of D.C. students now attend charter schools, which tend to have higher test scores than district-run schools. That may be a factor in the rising scores.

Education Consumers Foundation lists Tennessee’s reforms.

Successes are fragile, Whitmire warns. There’s always push back.

The author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes On the Nation’s Worst School District, he is writing a book about high-performing charter schools, On the Rocketship.

Maryland tops the NAEP dishonor roll by excluding most special-education students and English Language Learners, reports Dropout Nation.

Nation’s report card: Scores inch up

Reading and math scores inched up for fourth and eighth graders, according to the 2013 “nation’s report card” released today.  However, despite some progress by Latinos, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) showed no narrowing of racial and ethnic achievement gaps, notes the Christian Science Monitor. 

Tennessee and the District of Columbia showed the most progress.

Tennessee and D.C. students made gains between 2011 and 2013 in both subjects and both grades. Fourth-graders in both Tennessee and D.C. scored 7 points better in 2013 on math than they did two years earlier, and eighth-graders in both scored 6 points better.

“All eight states that had implemented the state-crafted Common Core State Standards at the time of the 2013 NAEP assessment showed improvement in at least one of the Reading and/or Mathematics assessments from 2009 to 2013—and none of the eight states had a decline in scores,” noted Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement.

Performance remains low,  observed Kara Kerwin, president of The Center for Education Reform (CER). “After decades of mediocrity, we celebrate today the fact that only 34 percent of our nation’s 8th graders can read at grade level and only 34 percent are proficient in math.

Dropout Nation also sees lots of room for improvement.

You can check out sample questions.  (Adjust for advanced, proficient or basic questions.)

In fourth-grade math, advanced students are expected to understand equations.

Lisa sold 15 cups of lemonade on Saturday and twice as many on Sunday. Which expression represents the total number of cups of lemonade she sold on both days?

 A. 15 + 15
 B. 2 * 15
 C. 15 + (2 * 15)
 D. 2 * (15 + 15

I was an advanced math student in fourth grade. Our group worked from the sixth-grade book. We didn’t get to equations till . . . eighth grade?

Here’s a proficient-level question for eighth graders. We learned this in seventh grade.

Image of a rectangle labeled 6 feet on the left side and 8 feet on the bottom side.A teacher drew this rectangle on a playground. Sam walked around the rectangle on the lines shown. How far did Sam walk?

 A. 14 feet
 B. 20 feet
 C. 28 feet
 D. 48 feet

Here are sample questions for fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade reading.

Teacher evaluation is a-changin’

Most states are using student achievement to evaluate teachers, according to Connect the Dots from the National Council on Teacher Quality. “What is occurring more slowly are the policy changes that will connect the rich performance data from these systems to tenure decisions, professional development, compensation, teacher preparation, and consequences for ineffectiveness.”

NCTQ looks at teacher evaluation policies across the 50 states and Washington D.C. Louisiana is “connecting the most dots,” followed closely by Florida and Tennessee, NCTQ concludes. Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, Rhode Island and DCPS are also ahead of the curve.

More states link funding to outcomes

Sixteen states now link higher education funding to student outcomes, such as graduation rates, and more are planning to do so. Tennessee links 95 percent of college funding to performance measures. Illinois links 1 percent.

Remediation first, then college

Tennessee community colleges are running remedial math labs in local high schools to prepare students for college math.

In Colorado, “early remediation” starts in eighth grade. Students who pass remedial college courses in English and math can enroll in college-level courses as early as 10th grade.

‘Proficiency’ means little in some states

States define “proficiency” very differently, write Paul Peterson and Peter Kaplan in Education Next.

Massachusetts, Tennessee and Missouri have the highest expectations, while Alabama and Georgia expect the least of their students. Texas, Michigan, Idaho, Illinois and Virginia also set a low bar.

Standards still declined in rigor in 26 states and D.C. between 2009 and 2011, while 24 states increased rigor, the study found.

The study grades the states for setting high standards, not on whether students meet those standards.

Having been graded an F in every previous report, (Tennessee) made the astounding jump to a straight A in 2011. . .  state tests were made much more challenging and the percentage of students identified as proficient dropped from 90 percent or more to around 50 percent, a candid admission of the challenges the Tennessee schools faced.

West Virginia, New York, Nebraska, and Delaware also strengthened proficiency standards, while New Mexico, Washington, Hawaii, Montana, and Georgia lowered the bar.

Uneven at the Start, a new Education Trust report, looks at academic performance to predict how different states will meet the challenge of Common Core standards.

New Jersey, Maryland and Massachusetts show strong performance and improvement for all students — and for disadvantaged students, reports Ed Trust.  Performance is weak in West Virginia and Oregon. Ohio and Wisconsin do well for students overall, but poorly for “or or more of their undeserved groups.”

Education Trust also has updated its EdWatch reports, which analyze  college and career readiness and high school and college graduation rates for all groups of students in each state.  The state academic performance and improvement tool shows how each state compares with the national average and with other states.

Teacher: We can help low-income students

Tennessee is offering $7,000 bonuses to high-performing teachers who work for two years in one of the state’s 83 chronically low-performing schools, reports the Commercial Appeal.

“These teachers will not be able to make a substantial difference in these communities, which have economic deprivation, massive poverty and are disconnected from the fiber of society,” says Keith Williams, president of the Memphis Education Association.

It’s difficult to teach students who live in poverty, but teachers can make a difference, writes Casie Jones, who teaches expelled or recently jailed students in an alternative program in Memphis.

My students struggle with poor attendance, behavioral issues, emotional challenges, and below-grade reading levels. Many students enter my classroom with failing grades and apathetic attitudes toward school.

However, I make contact with parents and demonstrate to students that I care about them personally, and this year I have even seen a drastic reduction in discipline referrals in my classroom. I also watched my seniors create four-page research papers after saying they couldn’t do it. Now, many of them are graduating when they thought they’d already missed their last chance.

More than half the class scored proficient or higher. That is a “substantial difference,” she writes.

Students, teachers, and administrators cannot use poverty as an excuse. We have to see through it and teach students how to maneuver around their obstacles. Our optimism becomes their hope.

Teachers who respect their students will earn their students respect, Jones writes. In her classroom, “the economic and racial barriers are down because we chose to take them down.”

Jones’ work was cited by Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman in a Commercial Appeal commentary responding to Williams’ lack of enthusiasm for the bonus program. “Children in poverty can achieve at high levels when we adults give them the opportunities they deserve,” Huffman wrote.

Teachers will lose all but $2,000 of the bonus if their value-added scores fall at a low-performing school, notes Gary Rubinstein in Huffman vs. Straw Man.

Reformers take over failing Memphis schools

Tennessee is putting schools with very low test scores and graduation rates into a state-run district, reports the New York Times.  Memphis, where the vast majority of public school students are black and poor, is the “crucible of change,” aka “a veritable petri dish of practices favored by data-driven reformers across the country and fiercely criticized by teachers’ unions and some parent groups.”

Most of the schools will be run by charter operators. All will emphasize frequent testing and data analysis. Many are instituting performance pay for teachers and longer school days, and about a fifth of the new district’s recruits come from Teach for America, a program in which high-achieving college graduates work in low-income neighborhood schools. And the achievement district will not offer teachers tenure.

There are signs of progress, but also complaints about “racial sensitivity.” That is, fewer than half the new district’s teachers are black, compared to 97 percent of students.

Cornerstone Prep, a nonprofit charter group took over the prekindergarten through third grade at a public school in in a very poor Memphis neighborhood, replacing all the teachers.  “More than a quarter of the new staff was hired through the Memphis Teacher Residency, a program for young college graduates, and Teach for America,” reports the Times.

Mid-year tests showed rising scores. But parents complain of strict discipline.

 “They don’t understand black folk,” said Sara L. Lewis, a member of the merged Memphis and Shelby County School Board. “They don’t understand our values or events in our history.”

But Sarah Carpenter, a Memphis mother and grandmother on an advisory council to the achievement district, said students are “engaged and learning.”  Children will get used to higher expectations, she said.

New achievement district school staffers are wooing parents in their boundary zones (they must take all who apply) with door-to-door visits and open houses.

 Malia Oliver, a mother of a current kindergartner, was impressed. When Allison Leslie, executive director of Aspire’s Memphis operations, asked to sit in on a special-education consultation for Ms. Oliver’s autistic son, “that just meant so much to me,” Ms. Oliver said.

But locals complain experienced teachers will be displaced.  “A lot of our teachers are going to lose their jobs,” said Charlie Moore III, pastor of the Life Changing Church of God in Christ in Orange Mound.

Do state takeovers work? The Atlantic looks at New Jersey’s plan to take over Camden schools and potential takeovers in Ohio and Maryland.

The track record for state takeovers is shaky “probably because they don’t tend to change a whole lot,” said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank in Washington, D.C. “The union contract stays in place, the bureaucracy stays in place. All that’s gone is the school board.”

That’s why districts are turning to nonprofit charter management companies  to take over chronically low-performing schools.

Tennessee bill cuts welfare if kid fails

Welfare parents could lose up to 30 percent of their aid if their child fails in school, under a bill in the Tennessee legislature, reports Ed Week. Special-education students would be exempt.

Republican state Sen. Stacey Campfield wants to penalize parents whose child is held back for poor performance — unless parents enroll the child in tutoring, attend a parenting course or attend “multiple” parent-teacher conferences. “It’s really just something to try to get parents involved with their kids,” Campfield told the Tennessean. “We have to do something.”

Tennessee already docks welfare parents up to 25 percent of aid if their child is truant.

Michigan bill: Let students choose districts

Michigan will consider letting students choose their school district, reports the Detroit Free Press.  Per-pupil funding would follow students to their public schools of choice.

The proposed Michigan Public Education Finance Act would  provide for learning at “any time, any place, any way and at any pace,” said Richard McLellan, who developed the proposal for Gov. Rick Snyder.  Districts would not “own” students.

The bill would:

• Allow students to access online learning from across the state, with the cost paid by the state. Districts that provide online courses would receive public funding based on performance.

• Provide a framework for funding based on performance, once the proper assessment and testing mechanisms are in place.

• Give scholarships of $2,500 per semester, to a maximum of $10,000, to students who finish high school early.

• Encourage year-round schooling by having a 180-day school year spread over 12 months instead of nine, with a break of no more than two weeks.

Naturally, there’s lots of opposition. Don Wotruba, deputy director for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said the state already is pursuing online learning and school choice. “But it’s monitored,” he said. “The answer is not to say, ‘Here’s the money. Make your own choices.’ ”

Tennessee is considering vouchers for low-income students, reports Ed Week.